Will Drive For Views: Exploring Griffith Park


I don’t know about you, but I tend to repeat my favorite hikes because they seem to have everything that I need: ease of parking, a steep enough grade for a good butt-kick, and a trail that is dog-friendly without being too crowded. But I love a new vista more than anything, so cherish a particular friend who knows the east side of town as well as i know the west side. Often we meet up to explore each other’s territory, and this week, discovered something wonderful that neither of us had seen before.

Sometimes, the most amazing things are hiding in plain site. Take Griffith Park itself – at 4500 acres, it is larger than most municipal parks and it contains multitudes: amphitheaters and kiddie parks, the Zoo and the Autry Museum, a golf course and a maze of wonderful trails. Not to mention wildlife. And it’s full of Angelenos of all kinds who enjoy climbing around this gorgeous playground. As a Hancock Park resident, the park is my friend’s go-to adventure hub and each time I head out with her, we explore something new to me – the Bat Caves and Mount Hollywood (which looks down on Griffith Observatory) and up and under the Hollywood sign.

We took the Beacon Hill trail, which is located right off Los Feliz Boulevard near the 5 Freeway entrance and has easy street parking. Here is the AllTrails link. We did it as an up and back route, which has some steep elevation if you head out to the north from the parking spot. From the top of the eastern most horn, we had a view that was considerably wider than 180 degrees. We could trace the cement ribbon of the LA River as it wound from Burbank along the 5 to downtown. DTLA looked so far away as to be Oz-like, especially with dramatic, overcast skies and brush that was starting to show fall color. We turned our gaze east towards Pasadena and Glendale, then pivoted to gaze out over Burbank and the San Gabriels.

It was Indigenous Peoples Day and we thought about the many stories that this city has to tell (see below for more about this particular land). The ease of a Monday holiday prompted us to follow our noses westward; we were curious to know if we could see Mount Hollywood from the end of the Upper Beacon Hill Trail. We wandered up onto Fern Canyon Trail, and headed south and found ourselves at the Vista Viewpoint – a huge concrete slab with views that sweep from DTLA to the sea. My friend was completely surprised – she’d never pushed to this spot and couldn’t believe how close she’d been to such a wonderful view! To the right, at eye level, was a fabulous view of Griffith Observatory and beyond, the rest of the city to the west. Crows, woodpeckers, and lots of lazy hawks sounded their applause for our decision to wander a few steps beyond our normal routine.

I’ve always thought that distant bunches of buildings call to mind the Wizard of Oz and looking out at three distinct upwellings (Burbank, DTLA and Century City) from this single vista was particularly evocative. Years ago, I learned that author Frank Baum holed up in Cuhaenga Pass to write his Oz stories, and always imagined him peering out at whatever buildings stood downtown in the early 20th Century and conjuring up the Emerald City. Many of us are yearning to travel again – but if there is one thing that the past two years have taught us, there is plenty to be found right here. Or, as screenwriter Noel Langley wrote in “The Wizard of Oz”;

“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard.” 

A little history: Griffith Park contains over 4,500 acres and was donated to the city in 1896 by Griffith J. Griffith in exchange for getting rid of a little tax problem. The land was completely wild when he gave up 3000 acres “to be used as a public park for purposes of recreation, health and pleasure, for the use and benefit of inhabitants of the said City of Los Angeles, forever.” Griffith’s was a complicated story – he drank too much, was jailed for trying to kill his wife with a shotgun, but got sober in jail and repented once he was freed, and continued to give back to Los Angeles, clearly believing in the value of public lands.

By now we all know there is always MUCH more to history than what we were taught in school and Los Angeles has many stories layered upon it. Before Griffith, the land was owned by Maria Feliz, whose relatives took over the land after a pilgrimage from Mexico to Monterey in 1775. But, before that and stretching back into history, the Tongva were the stewards of this region, and are known to have had at least three settlements in the park boundaries.

I enjoyed this half hour Lost LA episode on KCET about Griffith Park, and was interested to learn that the iconic Merry-Go-Round is connected to a few social justice movements – including “Gay-Ins” that took place a year before the Stonewall Riots. The Fern Canyon Trail actually starts at the Merry-Go-Round and climbs to Vista Viewpoint, so that is another option for this outing.

An excellent fun fact: There is a bench near the Merry Go Round at Griffith Park with a plaque claiming that Walt Disney sat there and dreamed up the idea for Disneyland.

More on Frank Baum and Oz: Here is an article about Baum’s life in LA, and his home on Cherokee Avenue. And here’s a Smithsonian article about his career and legacy. Best of all, this article makes a case that California is, in fact Oz. Whatever the truth, when I look at downtown LA from afar, I am grateful to Frank Baum.

Resources: Two excellent books are mentioned in the KCET show: Mike Ebert’s Griffith Park: A Centennial History (out of print) and Discovering Griffith Park: A Local’s Guide by historian Casey Schreiner.

Food: After our hike, we drove back to Hillcrest and grabbed a meal at Messhall Kitchen. We had a few excellent salads, but the restaurant also has extensive brunch and dinner fare. Free parking on Los Feliz Boulevard, or valet.

Highlights info row image

4500 Los Feliz Blvd (4.54 mi)
Los Angeles, CA, CA 90027